Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A few photos of our grumpy, oops, I mean sweet little baby

Until now, Salma would only cry when she was hungry or tired but now she has learned that screaming (shrieking in fact) can be an effective tool for getting what she wants. I'm trying not to respond to this tactic of hers so as not to encourage her.

Also, she has just started doing this "thing". She releases her breath in explosive, staccato, little bursts making a sound like "uh.uh.uh.uh". This worries me a little because its a sound I associate with stress or an inability to breathe. Don't worry, there is nothing actually wrong with her, it's just a sound that she likes to make and that I don't care for.

Of course, she is also developing many new and wonderful abilities and every day brings some kind of new first. On the whole, she is a happy baby who loves to smile and laugh, and I am grateful for that, Alhamdulillah. She is our little sweetie, and we are very fortunate and blessed to have her.

Earl and Diane have arrived in Panama to visit, and we are on our way to meet them. Tomorrow we are taking our first canal transit, Insha Allah, and no...that is not a medical procedure. I just SMASHED my pinky while closing the window, I've got it on ice, and the car is all loaded up to go. Here we go!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lovely Photos of El Valle de Anton Birds

El Valle is a birder's mecca, and in fact has a lodge dedicated exclusively to birders, The Canopy Lodge. I recently came across this website by a fellow named Charlie Corbeil. He's got some lovely photos of El Valle birds, and other miscellaneous scenes of El Valle de Anton.

I reprinted one of Charlie's photos above. I hope he doesn't mind. Laura and I actually spotted one of these odd little woodpeckers just a few days ago, on the El Valle Aparthotel street. I could never have taken such a good picture, though.

Eric the Electrician

I've mentioned Eric, the apprentice electrician with the feisty little dog and the super-athletic lifestyle. He also has an easy smile that I like. I once convinced him to try my home hapkido class, but he only came once.

This morning I had to tell him to leave my home and not to come back, and I'm feeling bad about it.

About two months ago, shortly after Eric (as part of Adam Brunner's crew) had worked on the electrical system in our home, he came by the house one day and asked if he could borrow ten dollars. He would pay it back Sunday, he said. I said sure, no problem.

Sunday came and went and no sign of Eric. I know that it's hard for some of these folks. Salaries here are very low, and it's difficult to make ends meet. Eric is married and has a small boy, and I realized he might not be able to pay back the ten dollars. I called him and said, "If you want to come work it off I have some small jobs for you to do."

So Eric came over to the house the next day. I had him repair my bicycle, re-pave a portion of the yard walkway that had been torn up during the electrical installation, and other odd jobs. He didn't quite work a full day, but I ran out of things for him to do and I told him we were even.

About a week later he showed up in the evening, 7pm or so. He said that his son was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital in San Carlos, and could he borrow another $10, that he would pay back on Tuesday. I loaned him the $10. Honestly I did not mind.

Again, the day of repayment came and went. This time I didn't call him. I decided to leave it up to him, and if he didn't appear or repay me, then that would be the tell. After a few more days had gone by, he showed up at the house in the morning. He had many tragic stories to tell.

Eric said that he had been struck by a car on the main road and had spent three days in the hospital. Furthermore, his little dog Clifford had been kidnapped by someone who snatched him up along the main road and spirited him away in a bus.

I told him I was very sorry about his dog, and if he was feeling better I had more jobs for him to do to pay off his debt. This time Laura and I had a list ready. We had him repair the washing machine (Eric said it's on its last legs and needs many new parts), check and replace all the faulty light bulbs on the outside of the house, install a light bulb in a decorative gourd that Laura bought at a shop on the highway, work on a few burned-out lights inside the house, and look at the shorted-out mini fridge. At one point he needed to go to the hardware store for a few parts and I told him to take my bike. Eric said, "Could I take your car? My arms are still weak from the accident." I said yes, even though the last time I let him use the car he took much longer than he should have for a simple errand.

Making a Choice to Trust

At this point some of you may be thinking that I'm a pushover and a chump. Maybe you're right, maybe not. When it comes to major decisions in life, such as important financial decisions or anything affecting the safety of my family, I research everything carefully and I proceed with caution. In my personal life, however, I make a conscious decision to trust people until they give me a clear reason not to. Occasionally I get burned in small ways, but I continue to make this choice because I don't want to live a life steeped in suspicion, paranoia, mistrust and selfishness.

Wealth and poverty are only tests from God. I could just as easily have been born in utter destitution. I could have been a starving baby in Ethiopia, a Calculatta slum dweller, or a poor Vallero (as we call the residents of El Valle). I was not given wealth because of any virtue of character, nor because of any virtue of my parents. It's not because I deserve it. It's not because I am better in any way than Eric, Rosa, Listo or Ani. If I allow myself to believe that my comparative wealth makes me superior in some way, then I have deluded myself badly and I have failed my test. I think many of the Americans here believe that it's right and proper that they should be richer than the Panamanians, and that in some way it proves their superiority. This disgusts me.

In Islam, wealth is not even considered a great blessing, but merely a responsibilty and a trust. Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to God. Everything from which our wealth springs - rich soil on the earth, green trees or crops reaching for the sky and the yellow sunlight that falls on them, rain, oil in the earth, gold, iron, copper and the silicon from which we make our computer processors - did we make any of these things? Even our own faculties of thought and physical movement - the moment by moment beating of our hearts - comes from God. He entrusts it to us and says, what will you do with it? Will you be generous and kind, or will you merely buy yourself more toys? Will you use it to change the world around you, even if only in a small way, or will you just buy yourself an SUV and a bigger TV?

So I make a choice to be generous and to trust, because nothing I have truly belongs to me. Sometimes my faith in people is vindicated, sometimes not.

Back to the Story

Eric checked the kitchen celing lamp that has not worked for a long time. He said the circular bulb is burned out and we would have to buy a new one in Panama, as they cannot be found around here. As for the mini-fridge, some of the components had been melted by voltage surges. Eric said that he could fix it, but I would have to go to Penonome to replace the parts. We bagged the various parts, and I informed Eric that I was out of cash at the moment (which was true) but I would call him after I had gone to Penonome and replaced the parts.

Eric asked if I could help him with his $60 hospital bill. He showed me a bill, and a prescription that he said he could not afford to fill. I told him honestly that I had very little money and could not help. He said, "Can't you give me just ten dollars?" I said no, I'm sorry, I cannot.

Several days later I received a substantial check for some online work I had done, and my cash flow problem was solved. Still, I did not call Eric.

Thursday night Laura and I were sitting in the living room watching "Chicago," the musical, on DVD. It was late, perhaps 9pm or so. Salma was fast asleep. Our front gate was closed, but not locked. We rarely lock it these days. Suddenly I heard my name shouted from the darkness at the front of the house. "Wael!"

Laura was alarmed but I recognized Eric's voice and I told her don't worry, I'll go talk to him. I went outside and found Eric standing in the carport. He said, "How are you!"

"What's up?" I asked him.

"How are you!" he repeated again. He was swaying slightly from side to side and his eyes were red. I realized he was drunk.

"I'm fine," I said. "What do you want?"

"I'm going to Penonome tomorrow," Eric said. "Give me the parts and I'll buy the new ones for you."

I gave Eric the bagged parts, and a ten dollar bill. "Is this enough to pay for the parts?" I asked.

Eric peered at the bill. "Yes, I guess so. Do you want a receipt?"

When I said yes, I do want a receipt (as usual), Eric laughed, as if to say, "How predictable." His laugh had a hard edge to it. This was a side of Eric I had never seen before.

I told him goodbye and went in the house. Laura and I sat down to resume our movie watching, when I heard Eric call me again. I went outside. Eric said, "Can you give me another $10 for the work?" He wanted to be paid in advance. It was clear now that this was a problem that had to be dealt with, but I did not feel this was the right time. I took the $10 from him, went in the house and got a $20, and gave it to Eric. He studied it in the gloom, then said, "Ok! I'll go to Penonome in the morning, and I'll be here tomorrow afternoon."

Friday afternoon Eric did not show up, but Adam Brunner, Eric's boss, was here with a plumber to fix a leak in our bathroom. I told Adam about the situation with Eric. Adam said, "I fired Eric a while ago. He borrowed money from me and didn't pay it back, he started coming to work late, and he's just generally been acting weird."

This morning (Saturday) I was sound asleep when Laura woke me up at 7:15 am. Eric was here.

Eric opened his backpack and took out the same bag of damaged parts that I had given him. He said that Penonome did not have the parts, but he had called a shop in La Chorrera and they have them. I said, ok. Eric said, "Can you give me some money for my hospital bill?"

"Give me the parts," I told him. He handed them to me. "No more," I said. "You keep the $20 I gave you."

"I don't understand," Eric said.

"No more," I repeated, and Eric cast his eyes downward. "You came here late at night, drunk, asking for money. It's not acceptable. No more, do not come here again." Eric did not look at me while I delivered this verdict. I put out my hand. "But thank you for everything," I said." Eric shook my hand, still without looking at me. I turned my back on him and went in the house. A few minutes later I looked out and he was gone. I walked out to the front gate and locked it.

There's no question that what I did was necessary, and I know that many people would have turned Eric away a long time ago.

Still, I feel bad. I don't know how much of what Eric told me was true, though it's obvious that Clifford the dog (who used to accompany him everywhere) is gone. And I did see the bill and prescription from the hospital after his accident. Regardless of what is true or not, however, I recognize that life is difficult for some of these people. They make very little money and they struggle to get by. How would I behave in Eric's situation? What choices would I make? I cannot answer that, but I feel bad for him, and I wish him well.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Hot Tub Dream (not as racy as it sounds, sorry)

Back in August 2006 I got an email from a fellow named Mustafa. He wanted to buy one of my domain names, I own about 700 domain names and I sort of have a corner on many good generic Islamic names, like,, etc. Most of these domains are currently just parked at and bring in a small amount of daily revenue, but I'll be developing them one by one eventually.

We did not come to an agreement on price, but we stayed in touch. It seems that there are not too many Muslims who are seriously involved in the domain industry, so we were both happy to meet someone with whom to share ideas and tips. As it turns out, Mustafa has more experience than me in this industry and he's the one doing most of the sharing. He has invested heavily in premium domains, and he attends the main industry conferences, like the T.R.A.F.F.I.C conference in Las Vegas. I have benefitted tremendously from the advice and pointers he has given me, not to mention the dozen or so ebooks he has shared with me.

We've also gotten to know each other a little. I know that Mustafa lives in Canada, is Indian, is married and has a nine month old baby boy named Humza.

The other night I dreamed that I went to Mustafa's apartment in Canada, just to visit and chat. He had a spacious flat on an upper floor of a luxury apartment building. I knocked on the door but no one answered. I tried the door handle, and the door swung open. I walked into the apartment. It was plush, with dark shag carpeting and a huge picture window looking out over the city. I wandered around the apartment a bit until I discovered a sun room with an indoor hot tub. Not quite like the one in the picture, but close enough.

I thought, "I'm sure he won't mind if I try out the hot tub." So I turned it on, took off my clothes, and eased into the steaming water. It was really lovely, and I just relaxed in the tub and enjoyed the view through the window.

At some point I thought, "I'd better get going before Mustafa returns." So I got out, hurriedly changed back into my clothes, and headed for the door. At that moment, Mustafa walked in with his baby in his arms.

"Ummm," I said. "You weren't home so I let myself in, I hope you don't mind."

Mustafa stared at me blankly, then said, "Okayyyyyy..." He went past me and sat on the sofa.

I said, "Oh - and I used the hot tub too."

This time he tilted his head and gave me a baleful look. "Uh-huh."

"Umm, I could help you with your baby," I said. "Does he need to be fed?"

"No." He still did not look happy.

I nervously said good bye and let myself out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Where is Home?

Symbols of Home

This symbol is called in Kazakh, a shangyraq. It represents the top of a yurt, the round tent used by Central Asian nomads, and it is known throughout Central Asia as the symbol for home, and by extension, family, tribe and the nation.

I carry my own symbols for home: the photo albums, of course, that accompany me with every move; my childhood baseball card collection, stored in a shoebox in the closet of my old bedroom in my parents home in Fresno. That house is home only because my parents are there; but I did not live there long, and the baseball cards are more evocative of "home" than the house itself, since the card collection was started earlier, during my childhood years in Davis, when I used to take my allowance to the Lucky store and buy a pack of ten baseball cards with a stick of pink gum (as important as the cards), a Hershey bar and a comic book.

Other symbols of home are a ragged t-shirt that I've had for twenty years - it's so worn now that it's almost transparent; a sheaf of favorite newspaper cartoons that I clipped and saved back in the bad years, when I was down and out; a Dave Barry book that he signed, "To my idol, Wael." That's another story. And many more little shangyraqs that are special in their own ways. I suppose I am nostalgic in this way, perhaps because I've moved so much and seen so much.

What is Home?

Why is it so important to us to be home, or to find a home, or to go back home? What is home, anyway?

We grow up and move away from our childhood home and from that point on many of us are homesick for something that we may or may not have had. We wander from place to place, looking for the place that feels right.

Some say home is the place you run to you when you're in trouble or confused. Though sadly, for some, it's the place they run from. That's the tragedy of being a refugee.

Home for many is the place of their childhood, often a place that doesn't exist anymore, a place that you cannot return to for comfort. Like the song says,

I went back to Ohio
but my city was gone
There was no train station
There was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
All my favorite places
My city had been pulled down
Reduced to parking spaces
A, O, way to go Ohio.

The Wanderer's Home?

So where is home for the wanderer, the wonderer, the one who does not belong? Where is home for me?

The USA?

This is the proud land of my birth. Sure, I speak the language and I know the colloqualisms, I'm educated in the culture, and I love a good California burrito. There was a time, long ago, when I was a true American believer. I memorized the preamble to the Constitution, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

But Robert Frost famously said that Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The USA does take me in, but reluctantly. They shuttle me aside at the airport to be questioned and searched, go through my laptop and PDA... the usual FWM (flying while Muslim) treatment. The last time I returned to California, they held me for hours. It was just me and a transvestite with pockmarked arms and suspicious brick-shaped objects in his bag. Then they let the transvestite go and it was just me.

hey take me in like you'd take in a bad relative, a freeloading cousin who needs a place to crash. They do not see me as a native son.

Some argue that this treatment is justified by the need for security. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I am an American-born citizen with no ties to anything criminal, the perception by some people that this treatment is necessary does not mean that I have to like it. It certainly does not make me feel at home, which is the point of this essay.

Well I went back to Ohio
but my family was gone
I stood on the back porch
There was nobody home
I was stunned and amazed:
My childhood memories
slowly swirled past
like the wind through the trees.
A, O, way to go Ohio.
What about Egypt?

I've never lived there. Even my own parents, having lived abroad for decades, are regarded as foreigners when they visit. Perhaps their accents have changed, or maybe it's the subtle differences in clothing, mannerisms and attitudes that they have developed. I remember once when my mother and I went to visit, back when I was in high school, and the taxi driver asked my mother where she was from, and when she said Egypt he did not believe her, even when she insisted. As for me, I would be a total foreigner.

And Egypt's abysmal human rights record is not inviting either.


It's beautiful here, at least here in this Elysian valley of the crater. I am at peace here. People smile at us and greet Salma by name, even people I don't recognize. As I write this the birds are singing outside and our two cats are sleeping comfortably a few feet away. Rosa has pancakes on the stove, and Salma is smiling and giggling.

Nevertheless, I miss being around Muslims, I miss my parents and my old friends, and I long to contribute something meaningful. Even once I get residency here I will not be Panamanian, and my role in this society will always be limited. I am essentially a guest, well treated and made comfortable.

Where They Understand You

Someone said that home is not where you live but where they understand you. Wow... So where is that place for me? Maybe the Market Street office of my former psychotherapist, Dr. Milhem? I'm pretty sure she understood me?

Really, where is this mythical, unlikely place where they understand someone who has been through hell and mud, who has never belonged, who dreams of something greater for the ummah and humanity but
who tiptoes so as not to wake himself?

Still, my friend Samayya said to me recently that all her friends are going through this "no one understands me" phase, which brought me up short to the realization of what a cliché it is, what a throwback to teenage angst and confusion about self-identity. And who understands anyone, anyway? We each live in our own universe, with our own galaxies of weirdnesses, regrets and unspoken thoughts expanding and contracting in our heads.

Speaking of which...

My Own Head

Some say that your head is your home. I remember reading long ago about a nomadic tribe in Africa who believe this very thing. They are constantly on the move, with no geographical home, but each member paints his skull with its own unique design that represents his own centeredness and identity. He repeats this design throughout his life, to represent a home that always moves with him.

I went back to Ohio
but my pretty countryside
had been paved down the middle
by a government that had no pride.
The farms of Ohio
had been replaced by shopping malls
and Muzak filled the air
from Seneca to Cuyahoga falls.
A, O, way to go Ohio.

What About the Muslim Ummah?

Ah, now we're beginning to touch on something true and meaningful. I realize that my non-Muslim readers may not be familiar with this terminology. The word Ummah comes from the same Arabic root as the word for mother, and it refers to the global community of Muslims, which is like a mother that nourishes and cares for us all. This is not a sinister thing in any way, rather it is a community of people who share a faith in God and a belief in spiritual living, and who are committed to helping one another and caring for one another. A Muslim belongs to this Ummah regardless of his or her citizenship or race. For a Muslim this Ummah itself is home.

This is an ideal of course, a vision of brotherhood and sisterhood that often does not live up to reality. It's true that the Ummah today is fragmented, disunited and ruled by a variety of dictators. Some Muslims might totally disagree on political or social issues, and even in their approach to Islam. In spite of all that, though, when I meet another Muslim, no matter where he or she is from, there is an instant transfer of recognition and respect.

Though there may not be a geographical place where they "understand" me, the Ummah is the closest thing to a community that understands me, that welcomes me, and that will always take me in.


I believe this is really the key.

It just occured to me that this town where I live now, El Valle de Anton, is very much like the Davis of my youth. Davis back then was an idyllic small town, full of arching oak trees, people on bicycles, and green parks that were all within cycling distance. It was a sweet place and time. That Davis is gone, surrendered to suburban sprawl and California real estate values, but here I am, having come thousands of miles to find a place just like it in which to raise my child(ren). So perhaps, in a strange way, I have come home after all.

Isn't this what it really comes down to in the end: you make a place for your family, and it's home because your family is there. Remember what I was saying about how you grow up and move away from home, and then you become homesick for a place that may not even have existed? I think this is in fact a rite of passage, leading to the time when you have children and create your own new home, one that lives not in your past or your imagination but in your wife or husband's embrace, and in the smile your baby gives you in the morning.

My daughter Salma does not dream of Davis, or Fresno, or any other small town of the past that has been paved into a shopping mall. For Salma, home is right here. This is the place of her birth and her childhood, and more importantly this is where her loving parents reside.

If Laura, Salma and I were to pack up tomorrow and move to India or China, it would still be home, because we would still be a family. Sure, I'd still think about Davis, Fresno, San Francisco and El Valle, and I'd still carry my nostalgic charms, my shangyraqs, but at the end of the day, coming home, it would be about seeing my family's faces, and their smiles when I walk in the door.

Between my family, and my Ummah, I think I have more of a home than most.

The Hereafter

I'd be remiss if I did not point out that from an Islamic, spiritual perspective, there is no true home in this world. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, "I am in this world like a rider who stopped briefly to rest under the shade of a tree, then went on and left it behind." He was a deeply humble man who ate only simple foods and wore patched garments, though he was born into nobility and later in life had the wealth of an empire available to him.

Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), one of the closest companions of the Prophet, once narrated this event:

"I went to the Prophet and saw that he was lying on a mat made of the leaves of the date-palm, and there was no bedding between him and the mat, and the texture of the mat had left deep marks on his body, and under his head was placed a leather pillow stuffed with the bark of the date-tree. On seeing it, I said, "My Master! Pray to Allah to grant prosperity to your followers. He has bestowed riches upon the people of Rome and Persia even though they are not believers."

The Prophet replied, 'O son of Khattab! Do you not prefer that they take the joys of this world and we of the Hereafter?" (reported in Bukhari and Muslim)

This doesn't mean that nothing in this life has value, but that it can't be found in the things we generally prize. Value cannot be found in material. Our houses, cars, computers and TVs, savings accounts and stocks, designer clothing and cell phones, and all the material things that we aspire to and hold dear, are dust in the wind.

What is valuable is what lasts: our behavior and actions. Whether we're hateful or compassionate, selfish or generous, devoted to God or devoted to ourselves. These things go with us into the grave and stand by us on Judgement Day.

Any home that we try to build in this life must be built on what is real and lasting.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Illusion of Immortality

We humans are so self-deluding when it comes to our mortality. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, each one of us seems to think that he will be the exception to the rule, that he will live forever.

We take up hobbies to "pass the time," and we sit around just "killing time," as if we have so much of it stored up that we don't know what to do with it; as if we have a thousand dreary years of life coming down the pike.

As if life was more than just a handful of sand, pouring through the hourglass as I write these words.

I'm guilty too. Oh yeah, there are important things I must do; I want to get involved in human rights work; I want to make some changes in my personal life, master martial arts, memorize the Qur'an, write a novel, make a movie... but there's plenty of time, right?

Auugggghhh! Wake up, Wael. In the best case scenario, your life is half over. Worst case, you're on the final stretch right now, just waiting for that mid-life coronary that will keel you over like an old tree in the wind. And there you'll be, facing Allah, trying to account for yourself and the life you lived.

Somehow I don't think that on Judgement Day I'll be thinking, "I wish I'd watched a few more episodes of the Andy Griffith Show." Or, "I wish I'd had a bigger tagua collection."

No, I'll be thinking, "I wish I had lived a truly unselfish life. I wish I had spent more time with my family. I wish I had left behind something meaningful that would live on in my absence: built a masjid, planted trees, written a book that would move people, passed on knowledge, or saved a life."

Maybe I'd better start making those changes and living those dreams right now. Except that it's 1:13 am now and I'm going to bed as soon as I post this. First thing tomorrow, I'll get started. What was it I was going to do, again?

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tropical Bytes, Part One

We're thinking of adding a few extras to the house, including a utility closet, a yard trash incinerator, a cistern, and an outdoor bathroom for the gardener. We were strolling around the outside of the house just before sundown, talking about where we could put these things, and suddenly I noticed several noseeums clustering on my legs (I was wearing knee-length shorts).

"Oh my God!" I said. "We've got to go inside right now!"

Nothing puts me in a panic like noseeums gathering for their evening feeding frenzy.

Watermelons are in season. Everywhere along the InterAmerican Highway are makeshift fruit stands, piled high with hundreds of sweet watermelons. And sweet they are, like red candy. No such thing as seedless down here, though.

I've been holding irregular Hapkido training sessions here in my home, with Nico the craft seller and Eric the apprentice electrician. Both are Panamanians, locals from here in El Valle de Antón, though Nico is originally from Panama city and it shows in a certain toughness that he exhibits. I've noticed something different about them, compared to martial arts students in North America, which is this: they do not complain or make any exclamations of pain.

Some of our Hapkido techniques are painful, and I know that Nico and Eric feel the pain, but they never say, "Ow, that hurts", or "Ok, take it easy", or "No more, please!" - All of which I have said on many occasions when training. When we're doing crunches or pushups, I am always the first to quit as I exclaim, "Ay, I can't do anymore." When I apply a joint lock to one of them, I have to really cinch it and work it to make him tap.

I attribute this to Latino machismo, which does not allow a man to express anything that might make him seem less manly.

I went to Penonomé for Jum'uah prayer today, and Laura and Salma came along for the ride. I've been missing Friday prayer because the city is just too far for a weekly daytrip, but Penonomé is closer, so I thought I'd give it a try. None of us have been to Penonomé before, and I was worried that I might not be able to find the masjid, so we left early.

The drive west is unremarkable, mostly lightly treed pastureland. We passed through the small towns of Rio Hato and Antón, and arrived at Penonomé in almost exactly one hour, quite early. Locating the masjid was easy - it is a large building with a minaret, right on the highway before you get into town. Since it was early for prayer, we went to El Machetazo, a sort of department store at the outskirts of town. We bought some snacks and a pair of white shoes for Salma.

Laura dropped me off at the masjid and went with Salma in the car to explore Penonomé. There were about 20 men in attendance for prayer, and a few women. The Imam was Egyptian, judging by his accent, and all the worshippers were Arabs, unlike Panama city where most of the congregation is of Indian origin. The khutbah (sermon) was in Arabic, and I was able to follow it fairly well. After prayer several of the men introduced themselves to me, and asked a few questions about where I was from.

None of these men spoke English, but all spoke both Arabic and Spanish, so I found myself in the unenviable position of having to choose between two languages in which I communicate poorly. I chose Arabic, because most of the men were clearly more comfortable in Arabic, with the exception of one young fellow named Akram who spoke Spanish like a Panamanian. As I spoke with them, I found that whenever I tried to remember an Arabic word a Spanish word would pop up in its place. I had to push the Spanish word away and retrieve the Arabic word from the depths of my brain. I think I'll have to brush up on my Arabic - isn't that funny!

After prayer, as I waited outside the mosque for Laura to return from her jaunt into Penonomé, the Imam approached me and encouraged me to come more often. I probably will, just because it's much closer then Panama.

On the way back we made three stops worth writing about. You can read about them in Part Two, perhaps tomorrow.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Sylvain Duford's Beautiful Photos of Panama

Many travellers post their photos of Panama and El Valle online, but Sylvain Duford is exceptionally talented. His website is, and you can see his photos of Panama here. He's got photos of the Mirflores locks, Casco Viejo, and Altos del Maria, a highland area near El Valle. I think there might be some photos of El Valle in there as well.

Very Cool Topographical Map of Panama

NOTE: Click on the image for a MUCH larger version. It will take some time to load.

This very cool topographical map of Panama is not a satellite map, but something called an SRTM map, or Shuttle Radar Topography Mission map. This is apparently a radar image taken from the space shuttle (radar penetrates the cloud cover). The colors were digitally enhanced to show elevation and topography. The large crater you see in the center of the map is El Valle de Anton, where I live.

For comparison, see this city map of Panama with El Valle de Anton clearly marked:

The El Valle crater is the result of a massive volcanic explosion over a million years ago. After the explosion, the crater filled with rain water and sediment, becoming a lake. About ten thousand years ago a breach opened in the caldera at the site of the present-day Las Mozas waterfall, and all the water drained out. The fertile valley was subsequently settled by Guaymi Indians, who still make up the majority of the population today.

The caldera of the volcano is now a ring of beautiful forested hills that surround the town.

To the right of the El Valle crater you can see the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun.

The borders of Colombia and Costa Rica are drawn in on the right and left of the map, respectively. On the left you see the dormant volcano called Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama. On the slopes of this volcano are the coffee and flower producing town of Boquete, where many North Americans have settled, and the town of Volcan, where many developments are in the works.

I found the SRTM map at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute website here:

They have many more cool maps of Panama.

Friday, February 2, 2007

What to Bring When Moving to Panama

Chris K., who lives in Watsonville, California and is planning a move to Panama, asked me what she should bring.

Here are my suggestions, based on my own experience and on the comments made by other expatriates on the Americans in Panama and Panama Forum Yahoo discussion groups. If you live in Central America and you have any suggestions of your own, please add them by commenting to this post:

  • Tools of any kind, whether hand tools or electrical tools. The ones here are imported from China and are poor quality.
  • Quality kitchenware, including pots and pans, silverware, can openers, etc. Again, not the best quality here.
  • English language books, CDs, DVDs. Even if they're books you've already read, you can trade them at the various book exchanges, like the one at the expat center in Panama City.
  • Light clothing made of natural materials such as cotton or linen. I recently ordered a bamboo fiber shirt online and found it to be extremely light and soft. Also, you may not find your size here. Panamanians tend to be shorter and more slender than North Americans.
  • A pair of waterproof boots or shoes for the rainy season.
  • If you'll be in the highlands, a waterproof or water-resistant jacket might come in handy during rainy season. In Panama City, however, it would be too hot for this.
  • Comfortable house shoes or house slippers. I have removed three giant spiders from our house, and I always wear slippers now. In addition, floors here are tiled, not carpeted, and so may not be as soft as you are used to.
  • A computer. The computers sold here have Spanish-language operating systems, so if you prefer an English-language model you should bring it with you. Also, computers and electronics in general are more expensive here than in the USA. Other electronic items I have brought from the states include a digital camera, aSkype-enabled cordless phone and a PDA.
  • If you have particular cosmetics or skin care products that you like, I suggest you bring a supply with you, since there's no guarantee that you will find the same brand here. I mean, the Farmacia Arrocha is full of imported skin care products, but you may not find that particular type that you're used to.
  • High thread count sheets and pillowcases. Hard to find here, I've heard.
  • The power goes out here occasionally. On her last trip to the U.S., Laura brought back a hand-cranked lantern and flashlight made by Freeplay. I love these. You just wind them up and you have light. No batteries needed. I take the flashlight with me when I go on my evening walks.
And a few more unusual ideas:
  • Are you an ice cream fan? It's hard to get good ice cream here. They do sell Haagen Dazs pints at the Supermercado El Rey, but they are expensive and often have that icy texture characteristic of ice cream that has melted and re-frozen.

    So Laura brought back a "Lello Gelato" ice cream making machine, pictured here, from her last trip. We have been enjoying fantastic home made ice cream. So far, Laura has made coffee, honey and chocolate flavors.
  • When you're ready to build a house, you want to make sure that any wood used in the construction is thoroughly dried, otherwise it may warp later. This is a problem here in Panama, as wood kilns are extremely rare and air-drying is not effective in this humid climate. If you can afford it, I suggest buying a meter that will measure the moisture level in wood (costs about $350).

Things to Leave Behind or Take Extra Care With

If you maintain a home in the USA, or you can leave a few things with a relative, you should consider leaving the following items at home, or if you really must bring them, take extra care with them:
  • Anything that would be adversely affected by constant humidity. For example, a baseball card collection, personal artwork, or family photographs. Of course you want to have some family photos with you, but is it necessary to bring them all?
  • Anything fragile, such as glass-framed posters, glass collectibles, or ceramics. These kinds of things are easily damaged in shipping. If you must bring them, pack them very carefully.
  • Heavy clothing, woollen clothing, jackets, sweaters, etc. Unless you are going to be in a highland town like El Valle, Cerro Azul, Boquete or Volcan, you will not need these things at all. Even in the highlands, a few windbreakers and sweatshirts generally suffices.